Our backs are amazing, complex structures.
The spine alone houses the spinal cord and nerves that control our every movement and process the sensations that allow us to connect with the world around us. It’s also part of a system that both absorbs and distributes force, such as lifting and carrying loads through our shoulders and arms, while our legs move us around.
In order to accomplish the many tasks it’s supposed to, the back has to be flexible enough to move in every direction, while remaining rigid enough to transfer heavy loads through our arms and legs, whether we are sitting, standing, or lying down.
We don’t really think too much of it until things start to hurt. Then it becomes very apparent how much the joints, ligaments, and muscles of our spine are used in pretty much everything we do our daily activities.
In this post, we’ll shed some light on this complicated structure, to give you insight into what our backs are capable of, what can happen when things go wrong, and how to maintain and improve your back flexibility for improved performance, both in recreational activities and in daily life.
Public Service Announcement
Before we get into the nitty gritty, here’s an obligatory PSA: We’re not doctors, and this article and the suggestions below are no substitute for being seen by a real-live professional in person.
If you’re having ongoing aches and pains that don’t seem to improve with rest, you really should make an appointment to see a doctor or physical therapist as soon as possible.
Good, now let’s continue.
Part 1 – Basic Structure and Function of the Spine
Starting with the bony structures, the spine is separated into four basic regions:
- Cervical (neck)
- Thoracic (upper and mid back)
- Lumbar (low back)
- Sacral (between low back and tailbone)
With 7 cervical vertebrae, 12 thoracic, and 5 lumbar, the big sacrum, and all the associated ligaments and discs, the spine is such an exceedingly complex structure that people can spend their whole lives studying just portions of it.
Needless to say, we’re just going to be able to give you the basics here, but we’ll provide you with the details that most affect you in your training and everyday routine.
This post focuses on the thoracic and lumbar spine which comprises the bulk of what we tend to think of as our “back”.
The thoracic spine, with its attachments to the ribs and as the transition point between the neck and the low back, is designed for higher levels of mobility, particularly in rotation, as we need to twist and turn to direct our upper bodies on the stable platform of our low back, hips, and legs.
Good flexibility in back bending and forward bending – extension and flexion, respectively – are also very important, both for health and for good performance in our physically challenging activities.
The low back is not as well designed for rotation, but is more suited for flexion and extension movements.
In bending forward and reaching, the movements in the thoracic and lumbar regions work together to give us a great amount of mobility. In bringing our hips forward and underneath us, proper lumbar extension puts us in a better position to use the powerful strength in our hips and legs.
The Nuts and Bolts of the Spine
We can start by describing the back from its deep structure, which are the vertebrae and joints.
The bony structure of the vertebrae provides support both directly, as the bone resists compression from gravity and other forces, and indirectly, as the attachment point for various ligaments and muscular attachments.
It becomes a stable base for us to use our arms and hips/legs as effectively as we can for every movement available.
Carrying, lifting, pushing, pulling, etc., can only happen with a flexible and strong spine.
In between the vertebrae are the “discs” that you’ve likely heard can be “slipped,” “bulging,” or “herniated.” This is because it has a tough outer layer and a firm jello-like inner layer.
This unique configuration resists vertical loads well, whether it’s simply the weight of our upper bodies or other stuff that we pile on our shoulders to move.
The disc also acts as a kind of ball bearing, which facilitates more mobility than if the spine were just made up of blocks of bone stacked on top of one another.
As is obvious from its location, the thoracic spine has to be a supportive and mobile structure for upper extremities. There are direct connections to the ribs by joint and ligaments, and indirect muscular and fascial attachments to the shoulder blades and arms.
In the lumbar spine, we see the junction point between the hips and our upper back and arms. Here, mobility is, of course, very important, but not as much as the stability necessary to transfer force well from the hips and even the upper back and arms. This is most apparent in carrying and throwing activities.
What You Really Need to Know About the Spine
It would be far too complicated – and would make for a much too long article! – to describe every structure and function in the whole back.
And, the truth is, for most people, more details wouldn’t really be much more helpful than just saying that strength and flexibility in this region is necessary for proper functioning in everything we do in our daily lives.
The muscles throughout the back are classified in layers, with the deepest ones being the multifidus – small postural and stability muscles – in the “groove” of the spine, providing stability and information. In the more shallow layers, there are the trapezius (upper, middle, and lower), latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, and “erector” muscles which connect the spine to our arms and legs.
Our back and pelvis are literally the base for all movement in our bodies, and we are made most aware of this when we have back problems and attempt the simplest tasks such as bending down to pick something up.
Part 2 – What Can Go Wrong in the Spine
When dealing with a complex structure like the spine, a lot can go wrong. Below, we’ll look at what can go wrong with regards to mobility, strength limitations, and causes of pain.
Common Mobility Restrictions in the Spine
In the thoracic spine, it’s common to see issues with extension (backward bending), simply because of the more common forward bending activities we do in everyday life.
As mentioned above, most of the rotation in our torso occurs in the thorax, so restrictions happen here when we don’t work our mobility to it’s fullest extent. Between driving and sitting, we rarely have an opportunity to extend and rotate our back to our true capability. This is when we see “use it or lose it” at work.
In the low back, there are issues with both forward and backward bending.
Forward bending issues most likely occur because of the relationship to the tightness in the hips most people have, and backward bending problems most likely occur because of the same issues as described for the mid and upper back. This is why hip flexibility exercises can do a lot for improving low back problems.
(For a complete post on improving hip mobility and strength, click here.)
This lack of mobility is worsened after an injury, and can result in very limited movement. In this case, even the simplest rehab or yoga exercises can have such a profound impact on acute back pain. I’ve seen people come into the clinic barely able to move and with some gentle handling and exercise, they walk out nearly normal.
Some people live too long in such a restricted range that trauma or even just a slight overreach can cause significant pain and dysfunction. Their bodies overreact to strain and stress, whereas a more conditioned and mobile back would have better handled the pressure and tension.
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” holds true here, as it’s much better to restore and maintain our back strength and flexibility than working on regaining it after an injury.
Anyone that has had back pain before can tell you that it can be a very frustrating road to recovery.
Common Strength Limitations
The rounded back posture commonly found in the seated position, where your shoulders flare out and roll forward, along with that classic “bad posture,” slumping puts you in poor alignment to use your back (and neck and shoulder) muscles correctly.
Imagine how it feels to carry a big, heavy box in an awkward position, where you have to reach around and bring your arms and shoulders forward to get your grip. It’s much more difficult than having your shoulders dropped down and back slightly, with your elbows in closer to your sides.
This is why even the strongest men have difficulty in those specialized competitions of picking up massive stones. It’s not just the stones’ weight, but also their awkward sizing forcing a compromised lifting posture.
Now add on to this a long standing habit of poor posture and positioning, and the muscles will tend to be weaker, even without lifting an awkward object.
The muscles between and surrounding your shoulder blades (rhomboids, upper, middle, and lower traps and the rotator cuff) become not just posturally weak, but weak in general. The deep and intermediate muscles of the spine, which act as stabilizers and support, will also weaken from long hours of sitting and slumping.
There are many ways to strengthen the back, from weight training to bodyweight leverage exercises. We need the stimulation of active back work in a variety of activities. Lifting, carrying, and bending in all planes of motion help to improve and maintain back strength.
Common Pain Complaints in the Spine
We’ve all heard lots of different ways to describe back pain in all the various areas.
Words like “pinched,” “ache,” “sharp,” “jammed,” and even “out” – as in “my back is out” – are all parts of normal conversations amongst high level athletes and garage gym trainees alike.
There are quite a few pain generating structures in this region: ligaments, tendons, discs, muscles, and joints can all cause separate and combined issues.
You could try to narrow it down to one particular part to blame, but that’s a tricky subject. The connectedness and adaptability of the body points to more than one cause, even in what seems like a cut and dried injury to a specific area.
Rather than focus on a particular area – not including issues after surgeries – it’s best to work on everything in a “wholistic” way. Pain occurs not just in one body part, but also as our body’s adaptation in reaction to an injury or trauma.
The best ways to decrease and prevent pain issues are to work on them gently and progressively, increasing your strength and flexibility in all motions by exploring your active movement in new and creative ways, and understanding that pain doesn’t necessarily mean damage from one causative factor.
Pain is a complicated issue and anybody selling you the “one secret way” to deal with it is either deluded or predatory.
Part 3 – How to Fix Issues by Focusing on Active Flexibility and Motion Exploration
The spine and all of its related structures do better in full movements as opposed to those done in isolation. In other words, you can start with fully flexing the spine with forward bending from your neck all the way down to your pelvis. Then reverse the direction and backward bend as far as you can as well.
These repeated motions, along with experimenting with different angles of bending, loading, and unloading are a great way to realize what your back is capable of and what you need to work on the most.
Keira obviously has a very good level of flexibility and motor control, certainly better than most people.
Do NOT let that stop you from going through these sequences.
The point is not to do these sequences and exercises just like her. Though if you can, you should. The point is to emulate the positioning as best as you can and use the details of the techniques to explore your ranges of motion.
The details I explain will help you zero in on particular areas and understand what you should be working towards.
Be patient and work through these concepts slowly. Over time, everything changes with smart, consistent effort, so allow yourself that time to make it happen.
Forward Bending Sequence
Forward bending involves spinal joint and hip flexion, and the associated flexibility of the muscles and other soft tissues of the posterior chain.
It can be difficult to isolate one specific cause as the key issue if you have tightness.
While it’s very easy to say you have tight hamstrings, in fact, the sensation of tightness in the hamstrings may very well come from an issue in your low back.
(If you do actually suffer from tight hamstrings, click here to learn how to fix that issue next.)
This sequence is a demonstration of “covering all the bases,” with a comprehensive approach that can be pared down as you practice and figure out what you need to work on for yourself.
A quick run-through of the sequence can give you a baseline as well, and act as a measure for progress.
We begin with a full spinal flexion movement, from your neck all the way to your pelvis. You want to round out as much as possible, then move into full extension (back bending). Though the emphasis is on the forward bend, you’ll want to move into extension as a break in between. It takes the spine through a full range of motion and is a good warmup for the sequence.
- In the squat, point your toes out at around 45 degrees. This positioning assists in helping you round out your lower back and go into a posterior pelvic tilt (the pelvis tucking under you).
- Get your chest between your knees and tuck your chin down, as well as letting your tailbone sink down.
- Play with rocking back and forth between your toes and your heels. Then sit back and drop down even further.
- Next, jump back into a push-up position. Then drop your hips down to the floor and lift your chest up and out, locking your elbows out if possible. Remember to look up as well, for extension throughout the entire spine.
- Do ten repetitions, or more if you feel up to it.
Standing Forward Bend
- Next is a standing forward bend, where you bring your hands to one side and keep them on the ground as you stand up. This is a combined forward bend and rotation.
- Another variant is to sit back into the opposite hip. So if your hands are to the right of your body, you’ll sit back to the left.
- Spend a couple minutes going between one side and the other.
Seated Forward Bend
- The last move in the forward bending sequence is the seated forward bend.
- With this move, you’ll add a rotation to the forward bend, just as you did in the standing forward bend.
- With your legs locked out straight in front of you, pick a side and fold forward at a diagonal on that side.
- Move in and out of the stretch at least ten times on each side, as well as straight forward, and hold the stretch on one side for upwards of a minute.
Back Bend Preparation
Backbending (spinal extension) can be a very uncomfortable and difficult motion for many people.
When you add up all the hours we sit, drive, and are parked in front of the computer, you’ll see how rarely we get into backbending positions during our normal daily activities.
So it’s no surprise that a full backbend like the bridge posture can be so daunting.
With this in mind, it helps to go through a thorough preparation before going to the limits of your spinal extension range of motion.
The first emphasis is on improving extension and rotation in the thoracic spine (your midback). Decent mobility in this part of the spine prevents undue strain on the lower back by distributing the motion throughout the spine rather than all on the lower back.
- In the first exercise in this video, you’ll see that Keira has to emphasize the motion, not straight down but also forward, as her shoulders are so flexible that she isn’t moving at the spine.
- When she improves her direction of force, you can see that the stretch is now where it needs to be.
- Work on this for three sets of one minute each.
- Next is thoracic rotation, which is essentially extension at the side of the spine you are rotating towards. This, in combination with side bending, takes you to the end-range of the extension motion. So you’ll be working on all the structures that need to be pliable for a good backbend.
- Keira is demonstrating two movement variations: the first is up on forearms and knees with the back starting in a neutral position, and the second is more on the back of the upper arm and shoulder with the torso bending to the side.
- When you try these out, you’ll notice that the second variation places you in a sort of pre-stretched position, so you won’t be moving as far.
- You may skip the first variation if you are already flexible, but even then, the first one is a good warm-up to do.
- Play with shifting your weight more onto your knees or your arms to find the best angle for you.
- Start with three sets of 30 seconds on each side.
Last in this video is a more direct back bend preparation and is adapted from a sequence taught by my Ashtanga yoga teacher, Cathy Louise Broda. It starts with a kneeling back bend, then works on the hip flexors, quadriceps, and shoulder bridges, to fully warm up and prepare the body for more intense spinal extension postures.
- In the kneeling backbend, it is key to elongate and lift the spine as you lean back.
- Pushing your hips forward and lifting your chest up and back will create this “open” spine, and will prevent a jammed up feeling in the low back.
- Relaxing your hips and buttocks will be difficult at first, but that is another key to a good backbend.
- 10 – 12 slow repetitions here will do you well.
- Next up are lunge stretches with rotation to the side of the front knee.
- Adding rotation to this position adds depth to the stretch and is a great concept to employ in almost any exercise.
- You don’t have to do this in full splits like Keira is showing, just go into as deep a lunge as you are comfortable. The effect is still the same.
- Do three sets of 30 seconds on each side.
- The camel pose in yoga is a backbend with arm support, and can allow you to improve your backbending technique with relatively little strain.
- With the support of your arms you can stay in the position a bit longer than you could just bending back.
- Remember the details of pushing your hips and chest away from each other to open up your spine.
- Work up to three sets of 30 seconds on this posture, as that’s a good amount of time to experience this position.
- Following the camel is the kneeling quadriceps stretch.
- If your knees bother you in this position, you can sit on a small stool or a few cushions to take some pressure off. If this doesn’t help, don’t force it, and try a standing or side lying quad stretch instead. You’ll be able to do this later, but don’t hurt your knees and put yourself out of commission.
- The key point here is to avoid a low back arch. Keep your back flat, so the forces of the stretch will be on the upper thighs and not on your back.
- Take your time and gradually lean back further when you can do so without pain.
- Three sets of 30 seconds to a minute will work well here.
- Lastly, shoulder bridge practice starts you on a more active backbend and is a great way to get a lot of repetitions in with good technique.
- You’ll pull all of what you’ve practiced so far in the sequence and work on a smooth spinal curve, relaxed hips, and good mobility and strength in the quads.
- Choose the shoulder bridge variation that works best for you.
- Perform a couple sets of 10 repetitions to improve your bridge.
In the full bridge, or “wheel pose” in yoga, you’ll need good flexibility in your shoulders, hips, and the entire back. But you’ll also need proper technique.
Important details here are to create that smooth curve and arch, like an archway in a building that can support weight evenly, and simply looks good.
You can tell when a person does a bridge and there is a sharp angle in one part of the spine – in that case, there will be more of a strain rather than a curve that distributes forces evenly.
- For a proper bridge, your arms and legs are the support structures and your hips and back should be relaxed and open.
- Your chest should be projected up and back, toward the top corner of the wall behind you, and your hips should be lifted up and forward, toward the top corner of the wall in front of you. This aiming in opposite directions creates that “openness” in the spine.
- Breathing should be steady and even.
- Hold the position for 5 to 10 breaths.
- Again, don’t force things. Take your time and improve steadily.
As you improve you can play with shifting your weight more toward your feet or toward your hands.
You’ll find which way is more difficult, and that’d be what you need to work on! It will also lead you back to which of the preparation exercises to focus on. It may be the thoracic extension, or your hip flexors and quads if they are holding you back.
Keeping Your Spine Healthy for the Long Term
Our backs are such a complicated area with interconnections to our entire body.
Because of this, it can be daunting to work on and it’s easy to be led in a lot of different directions on how to properly train and improve our function there. Not to say that any of those directions are necessarily bad or wrong, but a fundamental approach as outlined above provides a good foundation.
Spending the majority of your time on controlled active motion into progressively bigger ranges of motion combines flexibility and motor control training. This is especially important in such an interdependent area as your spine.
Understanding the basics of your back’s motion and function will give you insight into what is working well and what you need to spend more time on improving.
This critical exploration process for working on your back also translates well into how you can approach other areas and your training in general. This philosophy is ingrained into the GMB method, which emphasizes skill development with strength and flexibility training tailored to your specific needs.
We should all strive for a structured process that also allows for exploration and specialization for our own individual concerns.
If you’d like to take care of your spine and your entire body, you’ll love our body maintenance guide: Why It Hurts, How to Fix It.
Inside, you’ll learn the most common causes of pain and physical restriction in your body, including your spine, hips, shoulders, and knees.